Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Aerial view prior to cleanup © Steve Ales

Aerial view of the Badger Army Ammunition Plant prior to cleanup.
© Steve Ales

June 2013

Transformation on the prairie

What possibilities will greet visitors when the gates open at the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area?

Robert Manwell

Trans–for–ma–tion/ an act, process or instance of transforming or being transformed.

There is perhaps no better word to describe the decades–long process of creating a new state recreation area from a factory that produced propellants used by the military in three wars.

The new area has already been named. It is the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area, a name that reflects the landscape which is composed mainly of grassland and oak savanna and of the future use and recreational activities the property will offer.

"We are near the end," says DNR Regional Director Mark Aquino, who has been involved with the project since 2001. "The plant has been decommissioned and the master planning process is underway. It has taken longer than first thought ó in part because of the size and complexity of the property cleanup and also because of the extensive citizen involvement effort the Department of Natural Resources has insisted upon every step of the way.

"Before too much longer visitors will be able to enjoy outdoor pursuits as varied as camping, hiking, nature viewing, hunting, mountain biking and maybe even ATV riding and target shooting. Just what opportunities a future visitor will find are yet to be determined through the detailed master planning process currently underway."

A legacy of cleanup

Built in the 1940s after the United States entered World War II, the Badger Army Ammunition Plant produced military propellants for nearly 30 years leaving behind over 1,400 buildings, machinery, miles of piping, and soils polluted with materials used in the manufacturing process. The plantís owner, the U.S. Army, declared the property as excess to its needs in 1998 and knew it must clean things up before any transfer to new owners could take place.

Many of the buildings contained materials not considered hazardous at the time; asbestos and lead were common construction materials when Badger was built. These were removed and properly disposed of in approved landfills.

Whenever possible recyclable materials such as copper wiring and steel were separated and sold to scrap dealers. Fixtures, furniture and office items were sold through outlets like eBay. Much of the wood from structures was either brittle with age, coated with lead—containing paint or found to have soaked up potentially explosive materials. This wood was ground up and disposed of in appropriate landfills. But buildings with sound, clean wood were sold and moved to other sites while others were disassembled to salvage usable timbers for timberframe construction. Proceeds from sale of salvageable materials were used to defray other cleanup costs.

"We had salvage businesses from as far away as Iowa bidding for material," says Joan Kenney, director of the installation for the Army. "We think finding ways to reuse and recycle so much of the material was a real success and a win for everyone."

Even the concrete from building foundations is being recycled as road building material through a cooperative agreement with the Department of Transportation. In 2007, 28,000 tons of crushed concrete was used to upgrade Highway 78 and a planned upgrade for Highway 12 north of the plant location will utilize another 180,000 tons of crushed concrete.

But due to its unique nature and purpose there were also some not–so–common compounds left behind, mainly industrial solvents and a chemical used in the propellant manufacturing process called dinitrotoluene or DNT which was a major component of the smokeless powder produced at Badger.

Considered a carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, DNT cleanup has been a time consuming effort and has been a major focus of the cleanup for many years. Contaminated soils have been or are being removed or treated to levels sufficient to protect human health and the environment.

Monitoring wells, drilled to sample groundwater under Badger, have returned detections of solvents and DNT. Currently, water pumped from the most highly contaminated disposal site is being treated on–site, tested, and then discharged to the Wisconsin River.

The Army has been and continues to sample and test area private wells on a quarterly basis. To date, five wells have been replaced. Monitoring costs and if necessary, replacement of a well is paid for by the Army.

While the number of well replacements is low, there is a very remote chance that contamination could impact a private well in the future. One possible remedy would be to construct a municipal water system to serve the potentially impacted homes and any future homes in the area. If area residents and local governments were to favor such a proposal, the anticipated plan would be for the Army to construct and pay for the local governmentís operation and management for a specified time to be determined.

"Contamination transport in groundwater is very complicated," says Will Myers, a DNR remediation and redevelopment team leader and one of the cleanup project managers. "We evaluate speed and direction of groundwater flow, local geology and the characteristics of a particular contaminant and many more variables. Ultimately, we monitor the groundwater to see if the contamination moves and at what rate the contamination breaks down naturally. This is why monitoring wells are scattered throughout Badger. These wells act as sentries for private wells in the community around Badger."

Some cleanup activity continues but the pace and intensity of activity has passed its peak as Badger transforms into its new identity as the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area. Ten years ago, drivers cresting the Baraboo Hills heading south on Highway 12 were greeted with a view of more than a thousand low, squat buildings spreading across the landscape in carefully designed grids. Today, that same view is nearly unobstructed all the way to the distant Wisconsin River and Lake Wisconsin. It is a view that the first visitors to this fertile plain saw over 150 years ago.

Master planning underway

Aerial view of the pump house. © Greg Delwiche
Aerial view of the pump house.
© Greg Delwiche

Properties under state ownership and management have master plans that describe how the property will be managed and for what. Plans are as different as the properties themselves but they are built on a basic foundation of integrated resource management which considers the fish and wildlife found on the property and also the forests, waters and recreational opportunities available.

What they all have in common is a robust citizen participation process in the development and review of the master plan.

"These are, after all, lands that belong to the citizens of Wisconsin," says Aquino. "We take very seriously our responsibility to manage the lands and the resources entrusted to us in an ecologically sound and sustainable way, but also to involve the public in the process."

Early in the Sauk Prairie master planning process the department held a public open house asking citizens what kinds of activities they would like to see at Sauk Prairie. Over 400 responses came back with dozens of recommendations ranging from managing the property as a large grassland, possibly with grazing buffalo, to a mix of dedicated recreation facilities with non–motorized trails for hiking, biking and equestrian use, ATV trails, hunting, shooting ranges and a desire to provide interpretive opportunities for the geologic, historic and cultural stories linked to the property.

Habitat for common and rare plant and animal species are also considered. Sauk Prairie presents a great opportunity for grassland birds and other species as well.

Unique opportunities

Sauk Prairie is an outstanding example of the oak–savanna and grassland habitat types that once covered large areas of southern Wisconsin. Sauk Prairie also has a unique human history. Both offer opportunities for education and learning. Human history can be studied at the Badger History Groupís museum near the plant entrance. Natural history programs will evolve as the property is developed into the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area.

Soon, biologists with the DNRís Bureau of Endangered Resources hope to convert four old building foundations into bat hibernating sites or hibernacula. Research has shown that under controlled conditions, bats known to be exposed to the deadly white–nose syndrome that has killed millions of bats east of the Mississippi, can recover.

"Unlike natural hibernating sites which are often in caves with limited access, these old buildings can be disinfected in spring giving bats a clean, white–nose—free hibernaculum for the following winter," says Erin Crain director of DNRís Bureau of Endangered Resources.

"These buildings present an opportunity to save our bats at a very low cost to taxpayers. Some states have tried building hibernacula similar to what already exists at Badger at large expense. European countries have used old WWII bunkers for hibernacula much the same as we could do here. Use of these bunkers should not interfere with any other form of recreation."

Another unique opportunity found at Sauk Prairie is in the old reservoir used to supply water to the plant. The reservoir is home to a population of "neotenic" tiger salamanders. Salamanders go through life stages where they change their physical make up and appearance. Normally, tiger salamanders begin life as tadpole–like larvae living entirely in the water. They metamorphose into mostly land–dwelling adults at which stage they become sexually mature. Neotenic salamanders remain in the water and become sexually mature in their larval form.

The reservoir presents a safety hazard for future Sauk Prairie visitors, and is slated for draining and filling but not before a team organized by the departmentís Bureau of Science Services hopes to "rescue" as many salamanders as possible and relocate them to other habitats on Sauk Prairie and nearby ponds and wetlands. Several dozen of the unique animals will be shared with museums and schools for study.

Back to the big picture

"Itís our job as planners to look at everything that a property might be reasonably capable of providing along with the publicís suggestions and finding a mix that works on the property," says Diane Brusoe who leads the master planning process for the Department of Natural Resources.

"Master plans are intended to guide management and operations for a period of 15 years before theyíre renewed or updated. In terms of managing natural resources such as woodlands and grasslands and the wildlife that inhabit them, 15 years is a relatively short time. It also takes time to secure the resources and do the detailed planning for things like trails and other fixed facilities."

Planners also are working closely with those who would be neighbors to Sauk Prairie. It is expected that Sauk Prairieís 7,400 acres will be divided among three primary owners: the Department of Natural Resources will be the largest landowner at 3,800 acres, the U.S. Department of Agricultureís Dairy Forage Research Center will have 2,100 acres and the Ho—Chunk Nation has been offered 1,500 acres.

"Sharing the range of possibilities for the SPRA with USDA and Ho—Chunk is an important step in the master planning effort," says Aquino. "We donít want anyone to be surprised and we value their opinions as our future neighbors."

"Ultimately, a master plan will come to the Natural Resources Board for review and approval. Planners anticipate that will happen sometime in the fall following a public review and comment period for the proposed plan. All public comments will be reviewed and responses provided to the board when the plan comes to them.

"Weíre planning on opening the entrance to visitors in 2014," says Aquino. "Itís been a long and sometimes difficult road but I canít say enough about the enthusiasm, dedication and positive attitude citizens groups, local governments, our Department of Health Services, the Army, the National Park Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the General Services Agency, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, USDA, the Ho–Chunk Nation and so many more have brought to the table. Transfer of a property of this size to the public at no cost for the land is practically unheard of. This is a once–in–a–lifetime opportunity. We want to be careful and we want to get this right. I canít wait to open the gates."

Robert Manwell is the DNR's South Central District public affairs manager. His office is in Fitchburg.